Stories victorious: Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock on the Door
Fantastical, absurd, surreal, playful, comic, bizarre, dark. Keret’s short stories have the quality of fables, or the sort of baffling dreams that compel you regale all who will listen in the morning, and then wonder quietly to yourself what you may have ingested the night before. It has shades of Kafka, Borges, even, at times, Dr. Seuss. Fish can grant wishes; people have zips underneath their tongues and can unzip, becoming an inverted version of themselves; a haemorrhoid grows so big it suffers from a man; the very wealthy have the ability to purchase the climate of their choice, provoking riots by those who endure rain and storms while their wealthy neighbors tan.
The experience of Suddenly a Knock on the Door isn’t so much of reading a collection of short stories, but rather of sitting in an audience watching a man at the height of his skill perform jazzy riffs on the form of the short story. This is the fifth collection for the Israeli writer, and Keret is often at his best when writing about the art of composing – as in ‘The Story, Victorious’: ‘This story is the best story in the book. More than that, this story is the best story in the world…It’s super contemporary, and timelessly literary’ – and the collection begins and ends metafictively with the writer himself forced to perform.
In the opening title story, Keret turns his hesitations and difficulties with how to begin, the terror of a blank page and the crippling thoughts of the audience’s expectations, into an allegory where three men armed with guns and a meat cleaver force the writer ‘Keret’ to tell them a story. But when Keret attempts to conjure what he calls ‘something out of something’ and turn the frightening absurdity of his situation into a tale, the three men object. They want ‘something out of nothing’: fiction, the type of writing he has established himself as a master of,
‘That’s not a story,’ the pollster protests. ‘That’s an eyewitness report. It’s exactly what’s happening here right now. Exactly what we’re trying to run away from. Don’t you go and dump reality on us like a rubbish truck. Use your imagination, man, create, invent, take it all the way’
And so he does. For the majority of this wild ride through Keret’s strange and wonderful mind, we get magnificently absurd invention.
It isn’t Keret’s use of language that arrests you, but the situations he conjures – one is dazzled more by Keret’s setups, his narrative rather than his prose. This isn’t to suggest that Keret is not a great writer (or his translators unworthy) but rather that his prose is chosen very deliberately not to detract; it effaces itself for the primary focus of plot and exposition.
In one of the strongest tales of the collection, the protagonist Robbie reaches down into a deep hole underneath a rock and feels the handle of a large bubble gum machine. He turns the handle and instead of a brightly coloured piece of bubble gum tumbling out into his hand, Robbie is instead transported to ‘Lieland’ the place where all the lies anyone has ever told live. ‘“Who are you?” he asked the boy, who was standing in front of him. “Me?” the boy answered, showing a mean smile with a missing front tooth. “I’m your first lie.”’ Though always uncanny, Keret’s stories are insightful and often moving. Lieland is a terrible place because, as Robbie notes, ‘In general if you tell people something bad, they don’t question it, because it strikes them as normal. But when you make up good things, they get suspicious,’ and so Lieland is filled with the sick, the injured, the abused and maimed. In ‘Pick A Colour,’ God, who created a species in his own image, is crippled and in a wheelchair: ‘What do you think…that I created all of you like this because that’s what I wanted? Because I’m some kind of pervert or sadist who enjoys all this suffering? I created you like this because this is what I know. It’s the best I can do.’
Though disguised in bright and playful wrappers, Keret’s stories are often characterised by the injustice and maddening unfairness of real life – such as in ‘Guava’ where a man on a crashing airplane is visited by an angel and granted one wish before he dies. He selflessly wishes for world peace, only to be reincarnated as a Guava – terrified forever of falling from the branch while the world around him is peaceful and still. Or ‘Creative Writing’ where a world is written in which you can see only the people you love, but where a man’s wife accidentally bumps into him in the hallway, and sits on him while he’s dozing in a chair.
This is certainly a collection that can be dipped in and out of. There is nothing necessarily unifying the stories other than the brilliance and whimsy of Keret’s mind. But more than that, it can often been exhausting and mentally draining to spend too long in the constantly zipping, crazy pace of the tales. Like spending too long on a roller coaster, after a little while you want to get off, simply to regain equilibrium.
The collection ends with Keret made to produce again, this time for a German Public Television camera crew,
‘Write,’ she insisted again. ‘Great. I love your terrible posture when you write, the cramped neck. It’s just wonderful. Keep writing. Excellent. That’s it. Naturally. Don’t mind me. Forget I’m here.’
The story is entitled ‘What Animal Are You?’ a question Keret’s son asks all adults. His mother will never go with his flights of fancy and always answers ‘I’m your mummy,’ but the various prostitutes who climb the stairs to visit the man living in the house above them understand right away, and answer: ‘an elephant, a bear, a butterfly.’ We never hear which animal Keret tells his son he is that day, but one gets the impression from these stories he feels at times like an exotic creature in a circus, poked and prodded to perform for us. But he is too good a writer to set free just yet.
– Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock on the Door is out now through Vintage. RRP $19.95